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July 28, 2016 /UX/UI Design /

Designing Multi-Disciplinary User Experiences That Take Users Off the Screen

Credit: Photo by M. Fischetti for VISIT PHILADELPHIA

Next time you’re in Philadelphia, look up—way up—to see the One Liberty Place Observation Deck. The deck, located some 945 feet above ground, features a 360-degree interactive panorama of the entire city. With six touchscreens and nearly 100 interactive points of interest, the digital installation helps visitors get up close and personal with the city through stories, stunning gigapixel-class photography and unique observation.

It is just one of many interactive user experiences developed in collaboration with Stimulant, a San Francisco-based company that creates place-based digital interactions. This particular experience also involved the deck’s operators Montparnasse56 and photography partner Panogs.

“What we try to do is bring social experiences back into the physical world using technology as a conduit to connect people with one another in the same space in the same time,” said Nathan Moody, Design Director at Stimulant.

It is the merging of architecture, user interface design and experience design that sits at the intersection of reality and possibility. These types of experiences explore the possibility of making physical properties interactive and, in some cases, almost human. It is a whole new way to view the user experience, but it still very much rooted in user experience design.

“Make no mistake, every one who works here cut their teeth on the web,” Moody said. “What’s different is bridging the gaps between disciplines and deliverables.”

Moving experiences off the screen in an increasingly digital and connected world is inevitable. Stimulant’s clients range from museums and iconic national landmarks to cutting-edge and innovative companies, each seeking to create more meaningful and interactive experiences for their customers. As more people become aware of the potential to make physical spaces as rich as virtual spaces in terms of context and interaction, physical spaces will become just as much an actor in an experience as the very people who are experiencing it.

The Disappearing Computer

Exploration into the realm of smart physical spaces and user experiences isn’t new. The Disappearing Computer Initiative was a European government-funded program that launched in 2001 and was active for just a few years. Its goal was to see how incorporating information technology into everyday objects and settings would support and enhance people’s lives.

The work was based largely on three objectives that are perhaps more relevant to user experience designers today than ever before:

  • Create “information artefacts” by embedding technology into everyday objects
  • Explore how “collections” of these “artefacts” can work together to produce “new behavior and new functionality”
  • Ensure people’s experiences with “these new environments is coherent and engaging”

These early projects mimicked much of what we’ve seen developed in recent years. One project looked at embedding location-based technology into grocery store items like cereal boxes to help people navigate stores and find groceries faster. Another explored using the physics of sound control to enable appliances to communicate with humans. And this was just the beginning.

No Rules, But More Expectations

Fifteen years and countless technological advances later, designers are still in the early stages of exploring what is possible when the permanent and digital worlds collide.

“There are no best practices about doing any of this yet. Our responsibility is to educate our partners and get them excited about the possibilities versus the challenges,” Moody said.

Unlike virtual user experiences, building interactive user experiences in the physical world requires bringing outside elements into the design experience. Moody is constantly educating partners and clients around interactivity as a building material, the properties of certain construction materials, natural and traditional lighting sources, and how the physical and virtual worlds can work together to make an idea come to life.

Despite this, clients these days are often well informed and their expectations and aspirations have grown exponentially. They ask about Bluetooth low energy beacons, employ people internally to stay abreast of what’s cutting-edge, and bring examples of interactive experiences they’ve found on YouTube to help communicate their visions. Just a few years ago, these same clients were referencing Minority Report.

“They no longer need the tropes of science fiction to view what’s possible,” Moody said.

Challenges In Designing Multi-Disciplinary User Experiences

It’s not just the companies behind these experiences that are asking for more; users want more too.

“There’s been a 180 degree shift in terms of user expectation over the past eight years,” Moody said. “When we first started, you had to make it explicit for users to touch things. Touch experiences became commoditized overnight. Now everyone is going to be creating multi-touch experiences.”

Users want—and expect—experiences beyond touch, and companies are keen to deliver.
However, there is still an overall problem of awareness. Creating these types of experiences requires development and quality assurance testing that can get very complex. Various levels of augmented reality are often layered on top of an experience, making these massive and expensive experiences to develop. On top of this, these different technological components need to work together to sense when users are present or engaged in order to deliver the intended experience, something Moody calls “the socialization of technology.”

Since many of these large-scale activations occur in public or touristy places, privacy, accessibility and language barriers also pose challenges. At the One World Observatory in New York City, Stimulant addressed one of these problems by incorporating data into a visitor’s ticket. When a ticket is scanned upon entry, the visitor is welcomed to the experience in their native language and they receive insight into other visitors, able to see common places where people have travelled from around the world.

“Digital experiences in physical spaces are made or broken by the context that surrounds them,” Moody said.

This can be as complex as ensuring a user has an understanding of or familiarity with the experience’s goal, to whether or not a user’s fashion choices affect an experience. Fake fingernails, for example, do not conduct electricity, a crucial part of a touch-based experience.

Simple Does It

These experiences are turning places into spaces and changing the way we think about what constitutes an experience, all while helping brands and artists alike tell stories that allow users to create meaningful memories. At the end of the day though, no matter how complex the development or installation, these are still user experiences designed to bring people together. Slowly, they are changing the way people interact with each other, technology and the physical world around them.

“Give people a platform to share stories with one another and these emerging behaviors come forward,” Moody said. “Usually it’s the simplest of experiences that allows people to do that.”

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